At the opening of her very popular Fox News show last week, "The Kelly File," host Megyn Kelly named the Sun and referenced a question that was asked Hillary Clinton during her visit to our office. A few national and international newspapers, and a slew of conservative blogs, also ran it.
The question came from Sun columnist Tom McLauglin, who framed it as a device to accuse of Clinton of lying about what she said to family members of the people killed at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in the attack in 2012.
But why would McLaughlin’s question, in particular, attract so much attention when the subject has been beaten to death?
Because McLaughin did what professional journalists don’t do, even those on Fox or MSNBC news. And that is to break an unwritten code not to ask “gotcha” questions, which are designed to entrap interviewees into saying something that damages their character or reputation.
The best-known journalism school example of a "gotcha" question is, “Did you stop beating your wife?”
Say yes, and the interviewee denies beating his wife, but the question alone implies he once did.
Answer no, and it’s an obvious admission.
More on McLaughlin’s question later, but first a little bit about editorial boards.
The candidates stop by the Sun to get free press and ask for our endorsement. If the Sun were a little paper located in Fryeburg, Maine, none would stop in. And, win or lose, come Feb. 5, we will never hear from them again.
Still, we take our role seriously, endorse candidates we think best represent the Republican and Democratic parties, and consider meeting candidates in person a very special opportunity, if not an “only in America” privilege.
Such visits are not at all automatic. It takes a tireless effort by reporter Lloyd Jones to work us into a candidate's schedule, especially someone like Clinton, who shows up in a motorcade of a half-dozen big, black SUVs and a full contingent of Secret Service.
To avoid asking the candidates the same policy questions they've been asked a thousand times, we try to ask what we call contextual questions, the intent of which are to bring out their personalities and leadership styles, qualities we reference in our endorsements.
It's an informal process. We all grab chairs and basically sit around asking questions. I kick it off with two or three questions, and then the Sun’s reporters and columnists are free to ask what they want.
On the way out the door, the candidates sign what we have christened “Ice Box One,” a refrigerator used by Sun staffers every day to keep their lunches. This is the third primary for the fridge. It’s sort of our shtick and has gained notoriety. Clinton, who has now signed it twice, wrote in part, “The fridge lives!”
Through this way of vetting candidates, we’ve learned that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whether asked about his role in the George Washington Bridge scandal or his favorite Bruce Springsteen song, is full of passion and projects a powerful presence.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, contrary to looking weak standing next to Donald Trump at the debates, in person connects with people surprisingly well, coming across as confident, competent and someone you would trust.
Whether Republican or Democrat, we treat them with respect like the invited guests they are. We are not interested in catching them saying something stupid to post on YouTube.
As a result, many candidates tell us they like the experience, and many have stayed longer than scheduled. Clinton stayed nearly 90 minutes, making her an hour late for a town meeting in Berlin. One of Bush’s advisers, a four-star admiral, told me that because of our engaging and thoughtful questions, our editorial board was the best they've attended.
Back to McLaughlin.
For years, Clinton has consistently said she didn’t tell the family members that the video that went viral caused the attack in Benghazi. Some family members, who now regularly appear on Fox News, say she did.
These conversations were held at a large aircraft hanger where President Barack Obama and other officials, including Clinton, met the grieving families, some of whom didn’t yet know their family members had been in the CIA.
The conversations took place in what is probably best described as a receiving line. The conversations apparently weren’t recorded, as they were personal expressions of sympathy, and there is no independent way to prove what was said.
McLaughlin was well-prepared for the confrontation with Clinton, even reading aloud quotes attributed to some of the family members, and eventually asked her, “Now someone’s lying, who is it?
It was a "gotcha" question, because either she admits she is lying or by saying she didn’t, implies that the families are. Either answer besmirches her character, which was McLauglin's goal, and that was obvious to me and the rest of the staff, as we all cringed.
In fact, the obvious alternative explanation to either Clinton or the families lying is what Clinton tried to carefully explain — that those conversations are subject to interpretation, and happened during a stressful time and in the “fog of war.”
In his own column last week, McLaughlin wrote that “few journalists are able to pin her down,” suggesting that he did and that he is a real journalist, adding, “I don’t think she was expecting tough questions.”
Unaware of the irony and the contrast to himself, McLaughlin even quoted to Clinton the version of the video question posed by ABC News anchor George Stephanopolous, who on his show "This Week" asked her directly, and respectfully, “Did you tell them it was about the film?”
Fair and balanced journalists don’t ask partisan, loaded, "gotcha" questions. It's the reason why McLaughlin’s question became fodder for Fox News. And after hundreds of questions asked to dozens of candidates, the only one of this type ever asked at the Sun.
Mark Guerringue is the publisher of The Conway Daily Sun.